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Nuclear watchdog agency to elect new head

A low-key Japanese diplomat could become head of the International Atomic Energy Agency when the organization charged with blocking the spread of nuclear arms meets this week to replace chief Mohamed ElBaradei.

world Updated: Mar 25, 2009 22:52 IST

A low-key Japanese diplomat could become head of the International Atomic Energy Agency when the organization charged with blocking the spread of nuclear arms meets this week to replace chief Mohamed ElBaradei.

ElBaradei's successor will influence how the world meets the nuclear challenges posed by Iran, Syria or of extremists thought to be seeking the bomb. Nonproliferation is the IAEA's most high-profile task and the agency's director-general can determine the style and intensity of how the agency carries out its duties.

The change in leadership comes at a potentially pivotal time in U.S.-Iran relations: the new American administration has signaled it is ready for direct negotiations with Tehran over nuclear and other issues.

Formally, it is still a two-way race between men who are a study in contrasts. Both Yukiya Amano of Japan and South Africa's Abdul Samad Minty are the chief IAEA delegates of their countries and wield other formidable credentials, including senior national nonproliferation and chairmanships of IAEA and other nuclear meetings.

Both say they see the IAEA's role as essentially that of a technical organization that follows the direction of the 35-nation board. But with ElBaradei's 12-year tenure marked by increasing outspokenness, the US and its allies have made clear, without publicly stating it, that they favor Amano over Minty because Washington sees Amano as someone who would be content to manage the IAEA without thrusting himself into the political fray.

Minty's more outspoken and hands-on approach is backed by nonaligned board members that have often defended Iran in its claim to have a right to uranium enrichment, despite a U.N. Security Council ban.

Both said they have realistic chances of being elected IAEA director-general when the agency's 35-nation board meets starting on Thursday.

Amano said ahead of the opening meeting that he was "reasonably confident" of securing the two-thirds majority needed for a win. Minty cautioned against declaring a winner prematurely.

"It's an open race between two candidates, and we have to wait for the outcome," he said, suggesting he may yet triumph "because quite a number of countries have said that they have not yet made up their mind."

Whoever wins, including a possible undeclared compromise candidate, an era will end when ElBaradei formally steps down late this year.

Under him, the agency rose from relative obscurity to playing pivotal roles in investigating first Iraq, then Iran for possible nuclear weapons programs. North Korea left the agency and developed a nuclear bomb, and Syria came under suspicion after Israeli jets bombed what the U.S. said was a reactor build secretly and meant to produce plutonium when completed.

ElBaradei grew from an unobtrusive civil servant into a Nobel Peace Prize winner with a penchant for outspokenness that critics say exceeded his role. Washington unsuccessfully lobbied in 2005 to block his appointment to another four-year term because his statements on Iraq and Iran were peppered with barely disguised criticisms of U.S. policy.

Two diplomats from IAEA member countries said that ElBaradei has for more than a year declined to meet high-ranking officials from Israel, which has vehemently criticized his handling of Iran's nuclear defiance as overly soft.

They demanded anonymity because the topic was sensitive. IAEA officials declined to discuss the topic.